Giving Preservation a History: Histories of Historic Preservation in the United States

By Max Page; Randall Mason | Go to book overview

1

THE HERITAGE CRUSADE AND ITS CONTRADIGTIONS1

David Lowenthal

HERITAGE IS EVERYWHERE-in the news, in the movies, in the market-place-in everything from galaxies to genes. It is the chief focus of patriotism and a prime lure of tourism. One can barely move without bumping into a heritage site. Every legacy is cherished. From ethnic roots to history theme parks, Hollywood to the Holocaust, millions are busy lauding (or lamenting) some past.

Why this rash of backward-looking concern? What makes heritage so popular in a world beset by poverty and hunger, enmity and strife? We seek its comfort partly to allay these griefs. In recoiling from tragic loss or fending off a fearsome future, people the world over revert to ancestral legacies. As hopes of progress fade, heritage consoles us with tradition. Against what's dreadful and dreaded today, heritage is good-indeed, it perhaps first appears in Psalm 16's "goodly heritage."

Yet much that we inherit is far from "goodly," some of it downright diabolical. Heritage brings manifold benefits: it links us with ancestors and offspring, bonds neighbors and patriots, certifies identity, roots us in time-honored ways. But heritage is also oppressive, defeatist, decadent. Miring us in the obsolete, the cult of heritage immures life within museums and monuments. Breeding xenophobic hate, it becomes a byword for bellicose discord. Perverting the "true" past for greedy or chauvinist ends, heritage undermines historical truth with twisted myth. Exalting rooted faith over critical reason, it stymies social action and sanctions passive acceptance of preordained fate.

-19-

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